Shattered Lives: British Home Children in Prince Albert
by Joan Champ

The Sevenoaks Union Warehouse, circa 2001. Photo by Peter Higginbottom

This is the fifth in a series of columns about the 70 British Home Children sent to St. Patrick’s Catholic Orphanage in Prince Albert between 1901 and 1907. While all orphanage records were destroyed in the terrible fire of 1947, every attempt has been made to trace the life stories of these dispossessed children through genealogy websites and newspaper databases

The White Family, Part One: One Feisty Irishwoman

“Walter White, labourer of Sevenoaks Weald, was charged with using threats towards his wife, Mary White, on June 30th. On the Sunday previous he had punched her head, and on Monday night he acted like a madman. He said he would kill her if she took out a summons against him. … [Mary] obtained a separation order against him four years ago, but a little while ago she took him back on the condition that he never touched the drink again. … In default of obtaining the required securities (two of ten pounds each), prisoner was sent to Maidstone [prison] for one month.”
– Sevenoaks Chronicle and Kentish Advertiser, 4 July 1902.

There had been a number of previous convictions against Walter White (abt 1858 – bef 1903) for drunkenness and assaulting his wife. In March of 1900, Mary (O’Toole) White (1863-1946) testified in police court at Sevenoaks that her husband had ill-treated her over the course of their entire 11-year marriage.

That March, Mary applied for a separation order under the Married Women’s Act. She was advised that she must not return to her husband, so she moved her six children – James, Kathleen, Walter, Lawrence, Richard, baby Iris – to a room in the village. The next day, Walter went to her room in her absence and took the children back to his house. He told the police magistrate the children complained of being cold and hungry. Mary retorted that “a shilling a fortnight – all she had received from him – would not go far towards providing the children with food and warmth.” Mary accompanied a police constable, PC Hardy, to retrieve her children. Hardy later testified that Walter “behaved like a madman.” As soon as he saw Mary outside the house, “he came into the road, used bad language, struck her two violent blows, and knocked her into a hedge.”

By the spring of 1903, Mary and her children were inmates in the Sevenoaks Union Workhouse where she was separated from all her children except Iris, born in January 1902. Mothers in the workhouse were only allowed to see their children for half an hour on Tuesdays and Fridays from 5:00 to 5:30 p.m. This did not sit well with Mary. The Sevenoaks newspaper reported on 14 April 1903 that she had been charged with “refractory conduct” for taking her 7-year-old daughter Kathleen out of the ward. This was the fifth time Mary had refused the orders of the workhouse matron. Mary testified that the case had only been brought up out of spite for her complaints about the workhouse food. She stated that she thought the workhouse was “a disgrace to English men and women,” and said that “she did not mind punishment for she was going to Canada.” – Sevenoaks Chronicle and Kentish Advertiser, 17 April 1903.

On March 27, the Board of the Sevenoaks Union Workhouse reported that it had received a letter from the Catholic Guardians’ Association (an organization formed in 1894 for the care of the poor), stating that they were prepared to sent Mary and her six children to Canada if the necessary costs could be raised; the Association was willing to contribute.

Mary White (age 41, recorded as a widow) and her six children are all on the outgoing passenger list for the ship, Tunisian, which left Liverpool on 7 May 1903. Something must have happened – perhaps baby Iris got sick – because Mary and Iris are not on the arrivals passenger when the ship docked in Quebec City on May 15th. Mary and her youngest child had been sent back to the Sevenoaks workhouse.

There, Mary somehow managed an extraordinary feat: she became an agent for the Catholic Emigration Society. She served as the matron aboard the ship Bavarian for a large group of children heading to New Orpington Lodge, a receiving home for Catholic migrant children in Ottawa. She must have been desperate to reunite with her other five children who were on their way to Saskatchewan, so much so that she offered (or otherwise maneuvered?) to escort other children as well as her own baby daughter to the home in Ontario, with no intention of staying there herself.

Mary’s ship arrived on 6 June 1903. She then made her way to Prince Albert where she reunited with her other five children at St. Patrick’s Catholic Orphanage.

The White children did not remain in the orphanage for long. Mary had used the British child migration scheme to move her children out of harm’s way. By 1906, the entire White family was living in Saskatoon. Iris is recorded in the 1906 Canada census as “Shamrock”, a reflection, perhaps, of the luck she had brought to her mother in their escape from the workhouse.